A mystical shaman, returning bandmates, and grinding riffs renew thrash kings Testament

Testament metal Metallica With Soilent Green. 7 p.m. Friday, May 2, at Peabody's, 2083 East 21st Street, $28, $24 ADV, 216-776-9999.
Nothing like a little Testament to brighten up a dreary landscape pic.
Nothing like a little Testament to brighten up a dreary landscape pic.

Filled with spirits, prophecies, and demons, Testament's music and story are better than most bands'. The details of the group's 20-plus-year history, though, are quite common: Popular 1980s thrashers make some landmark records. The band fractures. The music changes. A major-label deal dissipates. Sixteen replacement players rotate through the group, keeping the name alive with more tours and more albums. Metal makes a comeback. Classic lineup reunites.

Depending on how you want to score it, Testament ranks as either the No. 5 or 6 all-time-greatest thrash band — the riff-roaring kings of the junior varsity, trailing behind Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. What distinguishes the San Francisco group is the fact that it got heavier as the years went by. But it wasn't a steady progression.

Creative differences fractured the peak lineup, which featured wunderkind guitarist Alex Skolnick, now part of the arena-packing Christmas-metal crew Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Skolnick was just 15 when he joined Testament, and by 1992, he was itching to try something new. He left after the tepidly received The Ritual album.

Low, from 1994, introduced growling death metal to the band's repertoire and countered it with "Trail of Tears," a six-minute ballad that lamented the bloody destruction of singer Chuck Billy's Native American culture. The album marked the end of Testament's commercial aspirations. But not its career. "All we knew was that the fans admired our early stuff, and we always knew we had to stay true to that," recalls Billy, one of two members who have been with the band since the 1987 masterpiece The Legacy. "So we started getting heavier and stepping back to our roots."

Billy's father had grown up on a Pomo tribe reservation, but he didn't want his kids to. As a child, Billy was vaguely aware of his heritage. In 2000, one of his friends told him she wanted him to meet another pal, a Native American medicine man named Charlie. Later, she said she had a dream in which Billy and the shaman were sitting around a campfire, putting on war paint and preparing for battle. Billy laughed it off.

Months later, he was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors found a tumor the size of a squash in his chest cavity. Billy battled the disease for the next two years and began taking steroids to offset a five-days-a-week chemotherapy regimen. His 6-foot-4 frame quickly ballooned from all the water weight. One day, Billy was reeling from the treatments when Charlie showed up at his door, offering to perform a healing ceremony.

The medicine man cleared Billy's living-room floor and told the singer to lie down and close his eyes. Charlie then took Billy on a healing journey, which the Testament frontman today refers to as a "mystical experience." Billy felt the healer dancing around him, chanting and playing a flute. Feeling like he was floating into space, he recalls hearing both howls and blowing wind, as Charlie invoked Mother Earth. The medicine man brushed an eagle feather across Billy's chest, and he felt something move inside. After finishing the ritual, Charlie told him, "The wind is going to be your spirit guide to get you through all this."

A few weeks later, Billy was woken by the sound of wind blowing furniture into the swimming pool. The treatments had been causing stomach problems, so he went to a downstairs bathroom, hoping to shake something loose. While seated on the toilet, he looked outside and noticed beer cans spiraling in the air, spinning around in a funnel cloud. Then his bowels moved, and he felt the sickness leave his body.

"Right then, the beer cans hit the ground," recalls Billy. "It was like a movie. I woke my wife up and said, 'I don't have cancer anymore.' I went to the doctor that week, and the doctor said the tumor wasn't cancerous anymore."

After two more trips to healers and a nine-hour operation, the shrunken tumor disappeared. The doctors declared Billy cancer-free. "I believe 100 percent that [Native American medicine] cured me," says Billy, who was so moved, he began digging up his roots. "That's what got me through. It was definitely a very spiritual, enlightening time of my life."

The sickness also helped heal Billy's band. Friends — including Skolnick — held a benefit concert to offset a mountain of medical bills. Billy even performed a song. Skolnick rejoined Testament in 2001, re-recording some of the group's old songs on First Strike Still Deadly. A European promoter lured Legacy-era members back into the fold for one show in 2005. That show eventually turned into an entire tour, which led to talk about a new album.

While the recently released Formation of Damnation doesn't quite recapture the headbanging groove of The Legacy, the recognizable crunch of Skolnick and never-departed guitarist Eric Peterson makes the record a worthy sequel to 1988's The New Order. "As long as Alex wants to do it and we're having fun," says Billy, "I think we'll be doing this for a while.

"The music is keeping me younger. I haven't grayed. I figure, one day I'm going to turn that corner. But I look at my heroes, like [Ronnie James] Dio and [Rob] Halford, and say, 'They're still rocking.' Hopefully, I can follow in their shoes."

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